The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be Orange County’s deadliest year, with over 4,500 county residents killed by the virus, while doctors, nurses, bands of communities organizations and health clinics stepped up to fight the spread of the virus.
The pandemic’s been marked by local health orders being walked back, enforcement questions, protests against orders, shutdowns and reopenings, a steady stream of deaths over the winter, economic pain and an unprecedented demand on food banks and social service agencies.
UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert Daniel Parker said state and county response to the pandemic was ‘not as good as I would’ve hoped.”
The Year in Coronavirus
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“The Orange County Health Care Agency, they are heavily impacted by political decisions. I don’t know what the solution is to that. There’s powerful business folks and other political interests that influence the public health care decisions. I think that got us to a stutter step,” Parker said, referring to the series of local health order walkbacks and lax enforcement.
Former health officer Dr. Nichole Quick issued an order March 17 banning all public and private large gatherings, with exemptions on grocery shopping and other vital services, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
At the time the order was issued, there were 29 confirmed cases in OC and no deaths, yet.
By the next day, the order was relaxed and only encouraged residents to not gather in large crowds. Although it did still shut down bars, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and other large entertainment venues.
It wasn’t the only health order walked back.
“The idea you’re going to have a pandemic and ace it is hopelessly naive. There’s always going to be things that caught us off guard,” said UCI epidemiologist Andrew Noymer. “Which is in no way shape or form saying that unforced errors weren’t made.”
The statewide shutdown order hit exactly one year ago, along with OC’s first COVID death.
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the state’s first shutdown order March 19, 2020.
By mid-April, numerous protests against the orders started popping up around OC, with the largest in Huntington Beach.
At that time, there 31 people were dead out of 1,653 confirmed cases.
Orange County saw two waves: one in the Summer and another in the Winter.
By the time hospitalizations started to routinely drop in mid-August, over 1,000 people were dead.
But the Summer surge was nothing like the Winter wave that began in November, when cases were steadily increasing and virus patients were flooding hospitals.
Hospital staff had to place people in hallways, office rooms, waiting rooms and use just about every inch of space they had to take in patients.
Ambulances also faced delays in dropping patients off because hospitals were so full.
Tents had to be erected out front of many hospitals to handle the overflow patients who were not critically ill.
The virus spike killed over 900 people in December, according to data from the county Health Care Agency.
Nearly 2,500 people died during the Winter surge, which also saw a peak of 2,200 people hospitalized.
“It was tough. I feel like I will be — as with anything that’s really, really difficult — a different person now compared to a year ago. I have learned so much, seen so much,” said Dr. Shruti Gohil, who’s an infectious disease doctor treating patients at the UCI Medical Center in Orange.
She said the waves of patients and deaths forced her to grow.
“I really think that it has made me a better physician, a better epidemiologist. And I think that many of our colleagues have also grown — I know I’ve grown,” Gohil said. “That’s good. It’s part of life’s experiences. It’s an awful one, we don’t want to have it this way.”
When the pandemic kicked off a year ago, there was a nationwide shortage of testing.
“It definitely affected everyone, including locally, because people couldn’t get tested and there was a lot of fear,” Noymer said.
It took an army of volunteers, local health clinics and community organizations to help curb the coronavirus cases in Orange County’s poorest neighborhoods, where cases exploded during the spikes.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” said Executive Director of Latino Health Access, America Bracho, during the early days of the pandemic when she and local health clinics were pushing to bring localized testing to frontline workers living in the hardest hit neighborhoods.
Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers, said the nonprofit health clinics struggled to get protective equipment for their workers and patients early in the pandemic.
That fight, she said, strengthened the coalition and helped tackle their next obstacle: localizing coronavirus tests for OC’s hardest hit neighborhoods.
Becerra said the increased testing in neighborhoods throughout Santa Ana, Anaheim, Buena Park, Garden Grove, Westminster and other working class neighborhoods would show where the hot spots were.
“Then came testing. When the testing opportunity came, we wanted to make sure we were part of that work. Because we already knew what the data wasn’t showing yet,” Becerra said.
The health clinics are naturally located in the hotspots because of various federal and state regulations requiring the nonprofits to open in a county’s poorest, most underserved communities.
“That generated the data that began to show where the positivity rates were occurring. What we feared came into reality. That coincided with where the clinics are located,” Becerra said.
Anaheim and Santa Ana were hit hardest by the virus.
Gohil, Noymer and Parker all praised the efforts from the community organizations and local health clinics.
“People doing the hard work on the ground did a major service to all of us here in Orange County and they have my respect,” Noymer said. “Those people are doing God’s work.”
Parker said the clinics have been critical in getting shots to the hardest hit and often hardest to reach communities, instead of relying on vaccination supersites many people can’t get to for various reasons.
“My experience with any public health thing is you want to make it as easy as possible to access,” Parker said. “It might seem like an inconvenience to me, but it might turn into an insurmountable barrier to other folks.”
Gohil, who often treats virus patients from the hardest hit areas in OC, also said the community effort was critical.
“I think that’s really the critical piece here that we really needed to do, so I’m really glad to see that.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio